I remember a song I heard once about an idea that feels right even though it’s wrong — and even after the singer knows its incorrect, he finds himself returning in unguarded moments to it again and again, because it just feels so good to think it — even though he fully knows it is not true.
We all have a gut sense of the way the world works. Unfortunately our gut is often incorrect. Maybe it’s about race, maybe it’s about sex, maybe it’s about religion, maybe it’s about foreigners: a belief that is demonstrably untrue, but is almost impossible to extinguish. Social psychology has amply demonstrated how easily people can be manipulated, confused, and mislead — even when we’re convinced that we’re right. We want our worldview to be validated, so when we get new information contradicts our biases, our brains are very good at ignoring it. Which makes us fall back on our gut.
The news is supposed to help us overcome these shortcomings. We can’t do research on every topic of import in the news every day. We need writers and editors to do that research for us, and to tell us what they’ve learned. The news is supposed to be about facts, and it is supposed to enlighten us — and maybe even get us to change our minds on occasion. But it’s not fun to have one’s preconceptions challenged. It’s a lot more fun have someone tell you: “You know, you’re right. You’re gut is dead on. Don’t worry about the facts. It must be true, because it feels true. That’s more important than facts.”
It reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s definition of “truthiness” from the first season of The Colbert Report: “I know some of you may not trust your gut…yet. But with my help you will. The ‘truthiness’ is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news… at you.”
My Uncle, Av Westin, wrote a book in 1982 called Newswatch. Uncle Av had been Executive Producer for ABC News for more than a decade, and Newswatch was a memoir looking back over his time in the news business and looking forward to where the news was going. Av had worked in news bureaus when there were relatively few sources from which most Americans got their information. In his book Av spoke to the big three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) essentially picking what stories Americans would discuss the next day as they stood around the water cooler at work. The television networks watched the print media (primarily the major newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times) very closely, and often would follow up on print media stories with more in depth interviews and analysis. The news media was a pretty clubby business (which was, needless to say, dominated by white men on the coasts).
When he wrote the book. Av was worried about the blurring of the lines between entertainment and news at the major networks. News departments saw themselves first and foremost as journalists, and they had very strict ethical and procedural rules to follow in doing their work. Journalism schools specialized in inculcating these practices in budding journalists, and newsmen who didn’t follow them were unceremoniously pushed out of the business. Av was worried that the acquisition of the networks by for-profit companies would lead to revenue pressure that would weaken adherence to these rules. Media companies needs eyeballs, because eyeballs mean more money from advertisers, which means more profits. The arrival of 24 hour cable news made the situation that much worse. Every day required new scandal to keep revenues flowing in.
Av’s concerns were prescient. The newsmen who led the news divisions of the networks in the 1980s would be horrified by our current media landscape. Not only has hard news been essentially taken over by the 24-hour networks, it has become unapologetically partisan and opinion oriented. The nattering nabobs of MSNBC and FOX frame the supposedly centrist agenda of CNN, but they all know they’re in the eyeball business. The journalists still adhering to the old ethical codes have watched their audience drift away to opinion media and online news sources that play fast and loose with the old rules. Now content is king. Stories need to gather clicks. Ubiquitous reality programming now feels like news, even though it is far from actual reality.
Churchill once said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Truth can take time, especially when there are powerful forces working hard to obscure the truth. Obsessing over the latest, breaking news sometimes is at odds with getting to the truth. The news is the first draft of history, and sometimes first drafts are wrong. If the pace of the news continues to increase, and there are new headlines coming out every day, then there’s no time to evaluate the truth of the last headline. And by the time the truth is uncovered, no one cares anyway, because it’s old news.
The journalists used to protect us from the lies. There was a small group of people who took their jobs as guardians of the truth very seriously, and they were committed to squashing the lies before they spread. Now control has been wrested away from that group by technology, and now everyone is broadcasting to everyone else 24×7. But if the guardians aren’t squashing the lies, who is fighting for the truth?